Monday, April 24, 2006

IEEE virtual museum on nanotechnology

Another quickie from amidst the movin boxies: the IEEE has a "virtual museum" (which, I guess, is a web site that's more informative than usual) that gives an overview of the history of nanotech to date. It's readable, informative, and does a good job of covering how far we've come and how far we have yet to go.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

ask a ninja!

First, there was the Real Ultimate Power site, which became a net cult hit. Then suddenly ninjas were totally sweet! But what are these ninjas? How do they think? What do they do? What do you get one as a gift? Finally, there's a site that gives you the answers. Yes, now you can Ask a Ninja! (See question #14 if you're still wondering about the gift thing.)

Monday, April 17, 2006

rolling blackouts in Texas

This is one of life's odd juxtapositions. Jeffrey Skilling, former Enron CEO, testified in Houston today. Also today, Texas experienced "highly unusual" rolling blackouts. Enron, of course, was implicated in California's rolling blackouts. Skilling's defense team must just be loving the timing of this one.

follow-up: drilling in the Arctic

Here's a quick follow-up to the previous post. I've heard some widely diverging estimates of what drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) would achieve, so I decided to run the numbers. According to the USGS's 1998 assessment, ANWR contains between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of "technically recoverable" oil (that's the 5% to 95% confidence levels) with a mean of 7.7 billion. The CIA's World Factbook estimates U.S. oil consumption for 2003 at 20.03 million barrels per day. Using that rate as a baseline, ANWR could supply the U.S. with enough oil for between 215 and 589 days (0.6 to 1.6 years) with a mean of 384 days (just over 1 year). Those timespans don't seem worth the effort if we're trying to meet Mr. Bush's goal of ending the country's dependence on imported oil.

OK, but what about the impact on the price of oil, which I've been saying is correlated with the price of gasoline? The Energy Information Administration released a March, 2004 study saying
With respect to the world oil price impact, ANWR coastal plain oil production in 2025 is projected to constitute between 0.5 to 1.3 percent of total world oil consumption. It is expected that the price impact of ANWR coastal plain production might reduce world oil prices by as much as 30 to 50 cents per barrel, relative to a projected 2025 world oil price of $27 per barrel (2002 dollars) in the AEO2004 reference case. Assuming that world oil markets continue to work as they do today, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries could countermand any potential price impact of ANWR coastal plain production by reducing its exports by an equal amount.
You can find an MSNBC report on the study here.

Again, I think we're left with the hard truth that if we don't like gas prices, the answer is to stop wanting gas so much.

record oil industry profits

No time for much of a post right now, since I'm right in the thick of moving, but you might find this interesting. It came from a discussion about this e-mail, that I've seen a couple times now, which calls for a boycott of Exxon until it lowers gas prices to $1.30/gal. That led to a discussion of the fact that Exxon has posted record profits again this year. I was curious about whether Exxon's profits were due to increased volume, selling more gallons of gasoline, or increased margin, selling each gallon at a higher mark-up. So I did a bit of digging.

Just to be clear up front, this is not a defense of Exxon, about whom I've been critical before. (See here and here.) I did this analysis because this is a serious, complex problem that we're not going to be able to solve without either accurate information or a whole lot of luck, and I'd rather bank on accurate information.

So, let's start with Exxon's income statement to see where their record profits are coming from. I've also added the government's numbers on average gas price per gallon (which I had to calculate by downloading their spreadsheet file) and some historical information on crude oil prices.

12/31/2005 12/31/2004 12/31/2003
Total Revenue 371B 298B 247B
Gross Profit 158B 134B 117B
EBIT 59.9B 41.8B 32.1B
Gross Profit / Revenue 43% 45% 47%
EBIT / Revenue 16% 14% 13%
national average gas price, all grades / all locations 2.28 1.85 1.55
average crude oil price, per 42 gallon barrel 50.04 37.66 27.69
crude oil price per gallon 1.19 0.897 0.659
gas price / crude oil price 192% 206% 235%
Notice that Exxon's Gross Profit as a percentage of their Total Revenue hasn't been increasing. In fact, it's actually decreasing a bit. Their EBIT as a percentage of revenue has increased, but that would be consistent with fixed costs not increasing at the same rate as sales (which is why they're called "fixed" costs.) Notice also that the price of gas, expressed as a percentage of the price of a gallon of crude, has actually been decreasing.

My interpretation of these numbers is that there doesn't seem to be price gouging going on in Exxon. Instead, gas prices are roughly tracking oil prices, and oil prices have been going up.

Why are oil prices going up? I don't have any hard data right now, but I'd suggest a couple factors. The first is instability in the Middle East. For instance, if the markets think the U.S. is going to invade Iran, which would tend to blow up oil wells and reduce the amount of oil coming out of Iran, they may bid up oil prices. The second is that the U.S., China, and India are all interested in buying a roughly fixed amount of black stuff in the ground. Lots of buyers and a fixed supply should mean higher prices.

Conclusion: if we want gas prices to drop, we need to stop wanting gas so much. That means either parking the cars (which is unlikely to happen) or fueling them with something that's not made from crude oil.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

an open letter to cell phone makers

Dear cell phone manufacturer,

I know you like to put new features on cell phones. After all, your marketing studies show that features drive sales. They let you create that all-important feature comparison chart, with the features in one column, another column per cell phone model, and a neat line of check marks going all the way down.

I’d like to propose another check mark. I know Qualcomm’s been advertising TV, GPS, and MP3 player on the phone. Those things might be nice, especially if I’m ever lost and want to catch the latest CNN with my own custom soundtrack. But here’s something that’d really be useful: boarding passes.

You see, when I get on a Southwest flight, I need a paper boarding pass. But when I’m traveling, I don’t usually have a printer with me, even if the hotel has Internet service. So by the time I check in, everyone else has done it the night before, and I get a C.

But my cell phone can talk to the Internet. And the newer cell phones can talk IR or Bluetooth. And the cell phone has a unique ID in it, so you even know it’s me – that’s how you can bill my calls to me. So why can’t I check in using my cell phone, and instead of printing out a piece of paper, why can’t I store the boarding pass on the cell phone itself? Then all I’d have to do is walk past the check in station and let the cell phone deliver my e-boarding-pass.

Now, I know what you’re saying: how much sense does it make to require someone to check in 24 hours in advance anyway? It’s kind of silly, after all, since a lot could happen in 24 hours and someone might not wind up showing up for the flight, so it can’t provide all that much assurance of a full seat. But the airlines like the system, so you might as well take advantage of it and sell a few more phones. Business travelers will love you.

Anyway, think it over. The idea’s free for the taking.

You’re welcome,
False Data

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

taking a break for the rain

One whirlwind trip's just ended and we're getting ready for another. On Monday I got an oral commitment on a place to rent. I sign the papers Thursday. Also on Monday Coppertop arranged for the movers to come. They show up Saturday, so we're both flying up Friday evening to prep the place, we'll be there Saturday for the move and clean up afterwards, then we fly back Sunday. Coppertop will take the painfully early flight -- the only affordable one -- while I'll leave a bit later to handle any last-minute mop-up. In the meantime, studies (for me) and training (for her) continue at the usual crazy pace.

We're having a fairly rare rain shower here. I took a few minutes to eat and sit on the covered patio near the grille. The smell of the rain brought back memories of sitting on the front porch during a full-blown, proper, Texas or Florida-style thunderstorm, drinking a beer and watching the show. I like California, but I sometimes get nostalgic for the kinds of thunderstorms you only get in more tropical parts of the world, where the rain's coming down in sheets, lightning's jumping everywhere, and getting wet isn't an annoyance, it's just a fact of life.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

movin' movin' movin'

Traveling again. Coppertop’s spending a month in Santa Barbara for training, so I flew up last night. We were up late packing the car, then got up at 5:30 to get gas, get breakfast, drop off some paperwork, and drive down to SB. We go there to find the apartment manager hadn’t left the key, but the door to Coppertop’s apartment was unlocked. It looked like they’d just finished shampooing the carpet but hadn’t done any dusting yet. Since the apartment manager had left for the day, Coppertop left her a message and we started unloading, making beds, putting away pots and pans, and so on. An hour and a half later the place was looking more like a home away from home and she dropped me off at the Santa Barbara airport. Now I’m waiting for my flight, too tired and brain-fried to update outlines. Maybe I’ll try to nap on the plane and hit the outlines once I get home.

United Express is running late. The plane from SB to LAX was late because that aircraft was delayed flying down from San Francisco. They just announced the LAX to Palm Springs flight was late because the aircraft was there, but the crew was delayed coming in from Utah. My connecting flight’s also late for unspecified reasons. It sounds like they have such an interconnected mesh of aircraft and crews plying complex routes that a delay in one part of the system, or bad weather in one part of the country, winds up rippling all over the system. It seems odd that these little turboprop EMB 120’s would need such a complex schedule to operate efficiently. They seem ideal for the sort of milk run Southwest does: fly LAX to Palm Springs, turn around and come back, and repeat. It makes me wonder if United Express’s schedule is something they designed or if it just evolved that way.

OK, if I ramble much longer, I’m going to start drawing parallels to fault tolerance in computer programming and then there’ll be no stopping. So I’m signing off while the signing’s good. Talk to you later.